The Death of Death!!

“The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.” (Jose Saramago, Death With Interruptions, Harcourt, 2008, p.1)

In Saramago’s most recent novel, everyone in a particular small European country inexplicably stops dying. The Queen mother, on her deathbed, stays there. Healthy persons who are injured or become ill go to hospitals and stay there, too. Life goes on the way it always has, until it is time to die.

Chaos follows. Nursing homes and hospitals overflow, life insurance companies grow wealthy, while health insurance and pension funds and the funeral industry go broke. A calamity overtakes the church, and the hierarchy from the pope on down, begin praying that God return death as a fact of life! Death- the fear of it, the theological threats able to be made because of it- had become the primary sustenance of this country’s church and nobody’s dying meant no one was bothering with church anymore!

Saramago is one of the world’s living literary treasures- he sees the world differently than most people; he sees beyond the superficialities of life and into the real and true underpinnings that define the ‘stuff’ of life. And he doesn’t hesitate to indict us as a society for our peculiarities and vagaries, even though he does it with humor, even gently. Death he says, is a big deal- of course! But we also tend to make it into an even bigger deal for financial, religious, and other societal reasons!

The funeral industry, the entire insurance industry, and (Saramago would say) the church industry- all are built upon the foundations of death’s inevitability. Those “industries” depend on death (again, Saramago says). Therefore, death in a modern sense gets dressed up in ways death was never dressed up in before. Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book An American Way of Death, was an expose of what she named the “death-care industry” in America: the funeral business. Hers was an indictment not only of high pressure sales techniques being used at the time, and of genuinely underhanded marketing, but of the industry’s simply making of a much, much bigger deal about funerals than any other country in history had done for persons other than royalty. What we had come to think of as normal- funeral homes, embalming, sealed and expensive caskets, and flowers- Mitford exposed as purely American ideas, successfully sold! (In the later, revised edition of her book, she added a chapter on the frequent collusion of funeral homes with local pastors: “Nosy Clergy” the chapter was called.)

Death had become- and largely remains- Death as a series of exclamation points!!!!! And that emphasis obscures the true nature of Death’s marking the end of a life, the end of a period. The Death of a body need not be a disruptive, climactic extravaganza. The death of a body is the cessation of breath, stillness, and the preparation of those nearby, for burial. The remembrance of the soul, the person, the consciousness which gave the body animation and distinction- that remembrance can be, should be acknowledged and honored. That remembrance is a very real psychologically and emotionally necessary period at the finish of a time. But it is not easy to do. There are decisions to be made, people to call, flowers to be ordered- Did anyone call the florist? There are clothes to be chosen and- one limousine or two? How many songs, which songs, who should pray, and- oh my god- do we go with ebony, bronze, or walnut, or- gross!- plywood? Do you have the checkbook with you? Open? Open? What, I have a choice?

Such is life, but c’est l’muert, too! We need respect and quiet, and we need to be able to note the passing of time without trying to stop the passage of time. We need to remember, and keep walking. Others have always done it that way, and we used to. We’ll be looking at some ancestral memories of those times soon.

Death, and the Community of Life

“Each individual life-form has its own historical appearance, a moment when it must assert its identity, fulfill its role, and then give way to other individuals in the ever-renewing processes of the phenomenol world..

“In our Western tradition, this passing of our own being is experienced as something to be avoided absolutely. Because we are so sensitive to any personal affliction, because we avoid any threats to our personal existence, we dedicate ourselves to individual survival above all else. In the process of extending our own lives, we imperil the community of life systems on the planet. This leads eventually to failure in fulfilling our own proper role within the larger purposes of the universe.” (Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts, Sierra Club Books, 2006, p.35)

Berry speaks as a one-time priest who went on to become an environmental thinker and philosopher. He died this past June at the age of 94. He spoke and wrote of Creation not in divine terms, but in holy terms. To his thinking, the processes of the Universe and of the Earth were sacred- to be in awe of, and to respect and protect. We do not stand ‘over’ those processes: we are not in charge of them any more than we were responsible for setting them into motion. Yet we (and I’m speaking here of humans) insert ourselves into those processes again and again in an effort to..make them better?..patent them? ..demonstrate to God how it should be done?

We dam rivers because we decide where to build cities. We drive cars because we’ve to get ‘there’ more quickly, we splice the genes of grain to yield more nutrition grown per acre, we build 4000 sq.ft. houses because the neighbors have a 3500 sq.ft. home, we fill lakes with antibiotics to kill off the algae, viri, and other biotics we’ve caused, for other former reasons, to grow there, and we do whatever it takes to live as long as possible. Or, in some cases, exist as long as possible. And then, in these and all things, we ask the God of our choosing and the government of our location to bless us: “Take care of us iun the manner to which we’ve made ourselves accustomed!”

By 2011, there will be seven (7) billion people on Earth. I once heard a conservative radio commentator point out that the entire population of the earth could stand in state of Oregon, and that each person would have something like 100 sq.ft. on which to live. He was pointing this out in order to pooh-pooh the arguments of what he called ‘over-population alarmists.’ What he said about living space is, indeed, true. But what he didn’t say is also true: he didn’t address the need and locale of arable land, potable water, storage and transportation of food and water, septic tanks, and the ease with which every virus, germ, and flea-laden brown rat could wreak havoc! Building supplies, climate control, and fuel are easy to ignore during the moments one is broadcasting vitriol-disguised-as-humor to a radio audience. But, in the eastern desert of Oregon, occasional shade will be necessary. Someone- picky, picky, picky- might need new shoes. And certainly there will be a need for shovels- lots them!

But, our broadcaster has helped a significant number of people again turn a blind eye- at least for a little while- to the inevitable problem of too many people! It is part of the blindness, or perhaps a result of the blindness, with which we have almost all turned toward Sister Death. We don’t like Death, so we postpone it as long as possible. We spend as much money in the last weeks of our lives on medicines and medical procedures as we have previously spent in the first 70, 80, 90 years!

We are choosing and able to live longer and longer lives. Which is nice on one hand for many of us; but for many others of us, the too-old age diseases of cancer and Alzheimer’s are like those hooks reaching out from behind the curtains to drag us reluctantly off the stage we thought was ours forever.
We are afraid of dying and we are institutionally committed to squeezing as much time from eternity for ourselves as possible. Quantity trumps quality for many at the end stages of life. We call the fights against cancer, for instance, courageous- and some of them are, absolutely! But there are also fights being fought against various diseases in which the winner (if we must use such a word) is easily predictable. And the battles in those cases are not born of courage so much as they are of being afraid of what is inevitable.

In the meantime, the sheer numbers of human beings increases. The fact that fewer and fewer of them are dying on the evolutionary and/or God-imaged timetables that thousands of generations before us have died on, causes that human population to be even larger than it would be through improved birthing methods and better nutrition. We are, by our numbers and our need for calories, crowding out others who are also in desperate need of the Earth’s surface!

But, (I ask, in Mr. Berry’s words) are we compelled to regard the “passing of our own being .. as something to be avoided absolutely” ? Must we continue to stiff arm our Sister when she insists on a conversation, then fighting her for the seat beside us she will, absolutely will, soon be sitting in? Or should we talk about it, with each other at first, with genuine thinkers within our various faith traditions, and with the thinkers in other faith traditions? I think we should, because we must. I don’t want to be pushed out of the way by the younger world surging behind me. I have earned no special situational graces by virtue of having lived longer than 90% of all humans who have ever lived. I want to be accommodating and gracious myself. I want, when my time is come, to not fight selfishly, but to take the final steps expectantly and hopefully, for those many generations of all other life systems I am preceding.

Sister Death


We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in their sins!
Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm.

We praise and bless You, Lord,
and give You thanks, and serve You in all humility.

(from Canticle of the Sun, by St. Francis of Assisi)

I think about Death, because I think deeply (as deeply as I can) about Life. It is in honor of Life, in a very real way, that I pay homage to Death by wondering, thinking, studying, talking about and now writing about Death. Sister Death, St. Francis called it, in perhaps the most comfortable evocation of its nearness and familiarity. And Sister Death I will often call it as well, with a nod of gratitude toward Francis and an opening of the door to my- our- oft neglected (or shunned) sibling.

In writing about Sister Death, I am not unaware that some will leave this blog, perhaps never to return.
It is easy in a culture which is afraid of Death- and that’s what we are, largely- to regard talk about it as a talisman or as a conduit. “I don’t want to think about it,” he/she/we says because thinking about means facing its inevitabilities, its finalities, and all of its inherent Mystery, if only for a few moments. The trouble is, like a Sister, once Death has been acknowledged, it cannot be unacknowledged. Poking at the dead fly on the windowsill as a toddler, is the first of a lifetime of questions about the Sister’s nature, followed by greater questions about her immanence, and then even greater wonderings about her permanence.

Death is not a crazy Sister, though, that we can keep locked in the basement no matter how much we may want to! It’s appearance, more frequent in some locales and personal decades than others, is a relentless reminder that we do not live in a static universe. We are always in the midst of change, in the throes of Creation, and caught in the chaos of many dimensions . The deaths of solar systems play out over light years while the deaths of mayflies begin and end in a single day, making the evidence of our existential similarities to either, difficult to observe. Culturally, we can ignore the Sun’s cataclysmic metamorphosis into a cold, ashen meteor and laugh nervously at the mayfly’s short and fragile grasp of life. And we can institutionally further close our eyes and minds to Death’s omnipresence by grasping at the testimonial straws offered by hustlers on the sanctuary circuit: “I died on the operating table and saw the third heaven!.” (more- much more- about that religious vocation in a later article.)

In short, I want to to dance with Death. But I want to do it here, in digital space- not at the edge of a canyon or in high stakes game of Russian Roulette! By exploring here, I am looking down in the dark basement myself, where we know our Sister stirs. We have relegated her there, most of the time, and I think it has been to our detriment. We’ve missed her songs; we’re missing her symphony. No matter how darkly we have been taught to hang the curtains around Death and regardless of how sonorous the basso-profundo chords are being played as we allow Death to stand in the Light of our Inquiry, we must know Death better. We must. In honesty, I tell you that I feel the desire already to retreat, to chicken-shit shut this door and go play somewhere else. But I think- I suspect and I am almost sure- that we are missing a great deal about Life by treating Death in this way. I think we must put our hand out and hold Sister’s hand in ours as we look her in the face and see the reflection of ourselves in her eyes. And then, because she will embrace us in her everlasting love one day, perhaps we can come to feel comfortable enough to allow her to sit closer, talk more often, and even- from time to time- put our arm around her shoulders and feel her heart beat with our own.

Each day, I will be building my thoughts and also deconstructing some of them, with the help of some great writers and thinkers who have challenged me. There are others reasons I write about this subject, too, and I will be sharing those as well.

If I die before I wake.. (you know the rest..)